Monday, April 2, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Stolen Sacrifice

The third of Gardner Fox's short stories about Niall of the Far Travels, which appeared in issue #13 (April 1978) of Dragon, is, in my opinion, much more interesting than the two that preceded it. Part of that is simply that, with two stories under his belt, Fox can now refer back to his earlier efforts, which lends some depth and texture to both Niall and the world he inhabits. So, when readers who've been following the series since the beginning see the names "Urgrik" or "Emelkartha," they're invested with some meaning. A bigger part, I think, is simply that Fox has, by this point, developed a better sense of who Niall is and what his world are like in his own mind and that makes for a stronger story. I know well that, when I start developing an idea -- any idea -- there's usually a point when things start to gel for me and that makes my work before that point look crude and inchoate (because they are). It's frankly a testament to Fox's creativity that his Niall stories started to become more than just generic sword-and-sorcery tales as early as his third entry.

"The Stolen Sacrifice" begins with Niall in the great city of Urgrik, about which we've heard mention since "Shadow of a Demon." When the story opens, Niall has seemingly been in the city for some time, in the employ of its king, Lurlyr Manakor. Of his prior service, we learn a little over the course of this story but much remains left to the imagination of the reader -- a tried-and-true device of many pulp fantasies and one of which I'm particularly fond. I'm firmly of the opinion that we don't need stories covering every second of a fictional protagonist's life, especially not his "origin." I much prefer that there be blank spots in his history; somehow, this seems more believable and compelling to me.
The man moved silently through the shadows, keeping always to the darkest places. He moved as an animal might, his body poised for instant action, a big hand on the hilt of the longsword by his side. His eyes darted from a doorway to the far corner, where the wind blew a length of scarlet silk hanging from the wall. Caution was in his great body, for he knew that should he be seen this night, death would be his reward.

Niall of the Far Travels was not afraid, though he knew that he would be killed, and in no pleasant way, should anyone discover him, or guess where he went — and why.

For fair Amyrilla of the golden hair had been condemned to die by order of Thyra, queen in Urgrik where Lurlyr Manakor was king. Amyrilla was the favorite concubine of Lurlyr Manakor, and Thyra was jealous of her barbaric beauty. And so Thyra had prevailed upon Lurlyr Manakor to offer her up to the grim god Korvassor in his splendid temple in Urgrik.

Amyrilla was not yet dead. Her death would come in hours, when the priests of Korvassor gathered in the temple to summon up their god. There would be no eyes to see that death, other than those of the priests of Korvassor. Amyrilla would be dragged screaming into the maw of the grim god, to be devoured, and only Lurlyr Manakor would grieve for her.

Well, that was not quite true. Niall would grieve as well, for in the weeks that he had been here in Urgrik, serving under Lurlyr Manakor, Niall had come to know pretty Amyrilla, and had loved her for her gentle ways. Yet now she was to die, abandoned by all save Niall himself.
That's a very solid beginning, providing the reader with everything he needs to know to enjoy what follows. As that opening (and the story's title) suggest, Niall intends to rescue Amyrilla from the priests of the god Korvassor -- and he does. But the real story begins after the barbarian sellsword has achieved his initial aim. After all, it's one thing to rescue a concubine from immediate harm; it's another thing entirely to spirit her away to complete safety. "The Stolen Sacrifice" deals with that very question, along the way taking unexpected turns that see not only the return of a major figure from a previous story but also the suggestion of a greater destiny for Niall that's quite different than the one he'd have chosen for himself.

"The Stolen Sacrifice" is a very fun read, certainly my favorite of the series so far and a pulp fantasy that's simultaneously in the same vein as Howard's Conan yarns and one that is bold enough to go in its own direction. It's well worth reading, if you can find a copy.

2 comments:

  1. The cover of this issue is one of my favorites. Is that supposed to be Niall or just some random dude.

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  2. It is a great cover, I agree. I suspect it's meant to be Niall.

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